Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Strange Plots 16


1933. Father was coming home that night from the city, and Lavinia wanted to make a surprise for him.

Father went down in Roanoke every few months to lay in supplies, things the general store in Titusville didn’t always carry or he thought it vanity to order from the Sears Roebuck catalog. Even though he would rumble in after dark, Lavinia would run out to meet him with the oil lamp, and together they would haul in package after package. Father would let her open a few that night and exclaim over the contents. The next day, everything would be sorted and stored in its proper place, and the farm would be set up until the next expedition.

He always brought her some treat, some chocolate or taffy, or a book, or fabric for a new dress. Once — oh joy! — he had even bought her a ready made dress, with its neat factory stitching and fashionable lines. Today she donned that dress and carefully rolled her braids over her ears to look as mature and respectable as possible. She was going to make Father a treat, and to do so she needed to ask a favor.

The walk into town was nippy on this late autumn morning, but in her jacket and hat she was snug as could be. Mature she may be, but she wasn’t too old to stomp leaves under her feet for the fun of hearing them crunch. She wasn’t afraid of the solitary road. She loved quiet, and peace, and being alone with herself. Thank goodness Father didn’t make her go to the high school. How could you learn stuck in a school, surrounded by other people? A desk by the window, a book in your hand, a room to call your own — that was happiness.

And yet, you couldn’t live life with your head in a book. There was the farm, and getting married, and having babies. To have babies you had to be married, and to be married you had to know a man you could love and cherish and… and make babies with. The facts of life were simple. She’d known them since she was a little girl toddling around the farm. Anyone knew how pigs and horses give birth, and anyone knew how they bred. Women, too, gave birth that way. It was not quite as clear how the rutting of dogs or bulls might be different as performed by a man, but there was time enough to puzzle that out when she’d met a man worthy of running her father’s farm.

For now, Father was the man about the place, and as he took such loving care of her and brought her gifts from town, she was going to do something for him. She was going to make him a pie. Not just any pie, mind you, though it was easy enough to make an apple or a custard pie. Those were fine in their ways, but they required a certain amount sugar, and sugar was so expensive and better used in preserves. Once, however, Father had eaten one of Mrs. McGrath’s meat pies, and had been forced to admit that it was as good as any he’d ever had. Lavinia had tried on the sly to imitate the filling, and had even bought several meat pies from Mrs. McGrath bakeshop to taste and examine, but she couldn’t quite get the proportions right, and she didn’t want to serve one to Father until it was just so.

But now there was no chance of tasting another pie. Mrs. McGrath was now Mrs. Sanders, and too elegant to run a shop. That was right and just for the mayor’s wife, of course, but it didn’t help if you wanted to recreate her signature pie. Mrs. McGrath-that-was had declared that her recipe was a secret that would go with her to her grave, but surely there was some way to convince her to share it with one person, or to entice her give even a hint that would help Lavinia make a pie that was just as good as anything Mrs. McGrath had ever turned out of her bakeshop. Anything a McGrath could do, a Titus could do better. Father had always believed that, and she was ready to prove it to him. How he would laugh when he realized what she’d done!

But it would be best if he didn’t realize entirely what she’d done. Lavinia was not to socialize with the McGraths, or speak to them, or even acknowledge them in town. Father had laid this down as a precept and followed it religiously himself. It had cost him some influence in town, since it was bad form to snub the mayor’s wife. But Father held his conscience as a higher authority than the esteem of men. Mrs. McGrath was a woman of sin, lawless even though she was now allied to the law. Perhaps she had repented of her destructive moonshining ways and her service to the vile drink that had destroyed brother Quintin. If so, she showed no sign of it with her vain dress and her tawdry hair of a color offensive to God. Lavinia privately thought that if God had given Mrs. McGrath her red hair, he must not find it so awful as all that, but it wouldn’t do to flout Father by saying so.

And so she was sneaking into town this morning, stealing in by back paths to avoid being seen, so that she could visit Mrs. McGrath (how hard it was to get used to saying Mrs. Sanders, when the hair was still McGrath!) without word getting back to Father.  Luck was on her side today. Automobiles rumbled, but none passed her. Sounds of morning fuss came from houses, but no one was outside to catch her as she slipped by. The first person she encountered at all was the Sanders’ colored man, raking the leaves in the front yard. Should she speak to him, or should she ring the doorbell?

He noticed her hesitation, and stood with his rake held respectfully before him. “Can I help you, miss?” he asked.

“I need to see Mrs. Sanders,” said Lavinia, and added, “Privately.”

“Of course, miss,” he said. “If you’ll follow me around to the kitchen, I can bring you right to her.”

And such a kitchen! Lavinia stood in humble awe while the man stepped into the hall to call Mrs. Sanders. Perhaps it was vanity to live in such luxury, but oh! the green pressed glass knobs! The linoleum floor! Lavinia itched to examine the modern range more closely, but it would not do to be caught prying like a silly schoolgirl when she needed to be shrewd and astute.

“My dear, what can I do for you?” Mrs. Sanders stepped into the room, as cool and powdered as a woman in a cigarette ad, not pink and flustered from a brisk walk into town. How did one address such elegance? But a Titus must be above such worldly considerations. A Titus must rise above the lure of the flesh both for the sake of holiness and for the sake of winning the prize. She must not fidget with her dress or pat her hair to see if it was in place. She must speak.

“Mrs. Sanders, I know this is unusual, but I hope you’ll pardon the intrusion.” Was her tone right? Just serious enough, without sounding servile? “I’ve come to ask a great favor of you.”

“A favor!” Mrs. Sanders’s languid eyes showed a spark of life. “How charming! Of course I’ll do anything I can to help you.” She took a seat at the kitchen table, and invited Lavinia to do the same. “But maybe your father won’t prefer that you take help from me, if there’s anyone else who can aid you.” She shook her head ruefully at the foibles and follies of men, and Lavinia caught herself smiling back.

“I don’t know if you will, when you hear what it is,” she said, trying to sit as gracefully as Mrs. Sanders had. “But you’re the only one who can help with this particular request. Mrs. Sanders, I want the recipe for your meat pie.”

“My recipe?” Mrs. Sanders seemed caught off guard by such a bold stroke. “Why?”

“Father is returning from Roanoke tonight, and I want to make the pie for him.”

Mrs. Sanders blinked for a moment, considering, and then her face relaxed into a gentle glow.

“I know your father has taught you well from the word of God.” She scratched a match and touched it to a cigarette as she took a long drag. “Perhaps you remember the book of Job, how the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Right now the Lord giveth to me. I live a comfortable life, with a loving husband and a big house and my dear son. But there was a time not long ago when I had nothing. Your own father was the hand of God, humbling my pride by destroying the wicked instrument of my life of sin and killing my son. My only means of support was my old pie recipe. It’s my whole livelihood. Should the Lord taketh away again, I must be ready to support myself, and if I give you my pie recipe, how will I be able to compete with such a darling cook? Who would come to me anymore when dear Miss Titus can do what I do, but with the benefit of youth and beauty?”

“I’m sorry.”

Mrs. Sanders laughed. “I don’t say it to reproach you. I’m flattered that you want my recipe. But the answer must be no. I’m afraid there will be no pie for your father, and I’m afraid I must tell him that you’ve come asking me, since I’m sure you’re here against his wishes.”

“Not about the recipe,” said Lavinia in a small voice. “I am sorry for the death of your son. It was very wrong of Father to shoot him when he came to make peace. “

“To make peace?” Mrs. Sanders’s face was neutral, her tone flat. “It was put about that Allan was trespassing.”

“His only trespass was to reach his hand out across the gate. My brother told me. You must believe me, Mrs. McGrath.” In her haste, Lavinia was forgetting the proper name to use, but the woman sitting across the table from her did not seem to notice. “I would do anything to atone for his death, ma’am. To make peace as he tried to make peace.”

“Anything,” said Tamar, her beauty caught and suspended in a death mask. “Anything. Did you say that your father would be home tonight?”

“Yes, that’s why I want to make the pie today, while he’s gone.”

Lavinia began to grow frightened by her stillness behind the drifting cigarette smoke.
Then, suddenly as spring, her soft smile revived. “My sweet child, you shame me. I’m just an old bitter woman but you have a heart as fresh and pure as your pretty face.”

“Thank you,” said Lavinia, her alarm beginning to melt.

“I cannot give you my recipe,” said Mrs. McGrath. “I know you will understand that. But I will let you look at it.” She rose and went to a small dresser, taking a box from the top drawer. Bringing it to the table, she flipped through the index cards, selected one, and placed it on the table before Lavinia.

Sage even in her gratitude, Lavinia scanned down the card, trying memorize proportions and ingredients. Already a few of her flops began to make sense to her as she compared her efforts to the recipe. There was a tap on the hall door, and the colored man put his head in. Mrs. McGrath stepped into the hall, then popped back into the kitchen.

“Please excuse me for a bit,” she said. “I’ll be back in a few moments.”

A few moments were all Lavinia needed. When Mrs. McGrath returned, the card was sitting in front of her place at the table, and Lavinia’s hands were folded neatly in her lap.

“Thank you so much,” she said, rising. “I am so grateful to you. I must go to the butcher now and get some cuts of meat. I must get started if I’m to be done in time.”

“My dear, never!” Mrs. McGrath took her arm and led her to the icebox by the back door. “I have all the meat you’ll need here. Stay and mix up the pie here with me, and I’ll show you the right way to chop and combine all the ingredients. Do you have raisins at home right now? Do you have nutmeg?”

“Well…” said Lavinia, wondering if this constituted taking charity.

“Please,” said Mrs. McGrath. “Allow me this pleasure.”

Soon the meats and fruits were on the cutting boards, and a merry swishing of knives filled the room.

“Did you learn your cooking from your mother?” asked Mrs. McGrath as she deftly minced the meat finer and finer.

“No, ma’am. She died not long after I was born.”

“That’s the plight of women in this world. If a child is not taken from it’s mother, the mother is taken from the child. She does the work to bring it into the world, and then it’s no longer hers to hold and protect.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Mrs. McGrath laughed and shoved a flamelike lock of hair away from her cheek with her wrist. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, but you will one day, when you have children of your own. You want children?”

Lavinia blushed. “I’d like to get married one day, ma’am. A big family is a boon on a farm. And I’d like to have a little baby, to mother as I wish I could have been mothered.”

Mrs. McGrath gasped and sucked on her sliced fingertip. “This just goes to show me I’d better keep my mind on the task at hand. Wouldn’t you say? Are you ready to add the spices?”

Soon the filling was all assembled, and Mrs. McGrath produced dough from the icebox, and they rolled it out together, chatting about butter versus shortening in the crust and the best way to cut in the fat. In no time, a lovely pie sat on the counter, top crust embellished with cunning designs.

“Now you take that home and you bake it, and you come back and tell me how your father liked it.” Mrs. McGrath wiped her floury hands on the towel, content with a job well done.

“Thank you, ma’am. And perhaps,” Lavinia could not believe her own boldness, “perhaps I might come back and make a pie with you again.”

“Oh, my child.” The older woman laid her hand on Lavinia’s cheek. “I would like that above all things.”

The kitchen door swung open, and Mrs. Sanders’ son, a broad shouldered boy Lavinia had seen at church, banged his way in and then stood, tense in surprise at the sight of his mother and Miss Titus in the kitchen.

“And here’s Demetrius home early from school!” trilled Mrs. Sanders. “I tell you what, it’s going to be a long dusty walk home with that nice pie. Why don’t I have Aaron drive you home?”

“Oh, I don’t know…” said Lavinia.

“And that way nobody will see you walking with the pie, and your secret will be safe from your father.” A sunny smile lit her face. “And Demetrius will escort you, for propriety’s sake.” Demetrius jerked and stared at his mother, who laughed. “Such a shy boy around a lady. Demetrius! Run out to the garage and tell Aaron to bring the car out.” When he hesitated, his mother inclined her head toward the door. “Go on and tell Aaron what you need to do.”

Demetrius backed silently out of the kitchen at his mother’s command.

“Thank you, ma’am,” said Lavinia, taking up the pie dish. “You’ve been so kind to me today.”

“It’s the least I can do for such a lovely child,” said Mrs. Sanders softly. “Here, let me help you into the car.”

As Aaron drove off, Lavinia in the back seat and Demetrius next to her holding the pie, Tamar watched them from the back stoop, her eyes tragic. Then she sucked on her cut finger, went inside and shut the door.

Demetrius was not much company. He sat ramrod straight, without looking at her, and flinched if her elbow or knee jostled him. But Aaron more than atoned for Demetrius’s sulkiness, making Lavinia laugh all the way home with his stories and riddles and songs. He drove with skill, sometimes veering into a back road or a pasture path if they heard another auto approaching. “Got to keep your pie a surprise, miss!” When they came to the Titus gate, Aaron wouldn’t hear of Lavinia walking all the way down the driveway. “Service right to your door, miss!” he said as she shut the gate behind him and hopped back in. He maneuvered down the drive so gently that he made no tracks in the gravel or in the empty yard. Right at the back porch he came to a precise stop, and opened her door for her like a real French chauffeur.

“Mister Demetrius, you carry that pie in for her,” Aaron said. “Ain’t no lady should have to bear a burden with a gentleman present.”

Demetrius sat immobile in the car. Aaron opened his door his door too and stood looking down at him. 

“Now you treat a lady right,” he scolded with paternal kindness. "Mind you take that pie right in and set it on the counter!”

“Maybe she doesn’t want me to,” Demetrius said, in his slow way, finally looking Aaron in the face.

“But if she doesn’t get started on her baking it will be too late,” said Aaron with an edge of patience. “What time does your father come home, miss?”

“Not until after dark.”

“And you want everything to be ready and waiting for him! Mister Demetrius, do you hear?”

Still he sat. “I can’t go in that house with her.”

“Miss Lavinia, he’s just too proud to go into the Titus house!” Aaron chortled. “Won’t you ask him? He won’t listen to me today.”

Lavinia stepped to the door and laid a hand on Demetrius’s stiff arm. “Please won’t you come in?” she asked, smiling to put him at his ease. “Let’s make peace between our families. Won’t you at least have a glass of water with me?” She stifled a laugh as she caught Aaron’s wink from the corner of her eye. The sound of her mirth seemed to kindle something in Demetrius. He got out of the car, awkward with pie in hand, and pushed ahead of her to the door.

“Let’s go,” he said hoarsely.

As Lavinia opened the kitchen door and closed it behind him, Aaron leaned back against the car and lit a cigarette, cupping his hand against the sudden chill breeze.

Shortly before dusk, a car crept gently down the Titus drive away from the dark house, disturbing no gravel, and turned softly onto the road toward town. The mayor’s chauffeur was at the wheel, driving in his correct and unobtrusive fashion after fastening the gate securely behind him. In the back, hidden on the floor, was Demetrius McGrath, clutching the unbaked pie in his bloody hands.

“Your mother will certainly enjoy that tonight for her supper,” Aaron remarked. “It was clever of you to remember to take it.”

“Shut up,” came a strangled moan from the floor.

“Ought to sleep well tonight,” said Aaron, with no hint of malice. “Always do, afterwards.”

The only sound from the back was muffled wrenching sobs.


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